See You Space Cowbot
Developer Image & Form launched the original SteamWorld Heist on the Nintendo 3DS in 2015, introducing gamers to a unique brand of sidescrolling strategy. With the “Ultimate Edition” on Nintendo Switch, the company hopes to reignite that spark for anyone that missed it. And it does so with good timing, hot off the heels of its successful SteamWorld Dig 2 release. Although Heist is set in the same universe, the games couldn’t be further apart in gameplay and plot. So you don’t necessarily need to play one to understand the other.
Here’s the Video Version for your viewing pleasure!
SteamWorld Heist doesn’t even take place on the same planet, instead taking the action to space. You play as Piper Faraday, captain of a ragtag crew of space pirates known as Cowbots. In each mission, you plunder a ship for treasure, destroying enemy Steambots in the process. A bigger plot unfolds beyond claiming your “space turf,” and it’s charmingly told through old-timey newsreels. But for the most part, the story plays second fiddle to gameplay.
Within the strategy genre, SteamWorld Heist plays out more like XCOM or Worms. You and the opposing team take turns moving all your pawns in an effort to fulfill your mission requirements. Characters can only travel a certain distance before they must make a move, whether shooting foes or opening doors, but you can sprint further at the cost of your turn action, creating an effective risk vs. retreat system. Once you’re in position, you manually aim your gun to fire.
Shooting doesn’t come naturally to me in games, but I felt comfortable here for a number of reasons. First, unlike Mario + Rabbids or Fire Emblem’s top-down maps, SteamWorld Heist features 2D stages: a design decision that makes the aiming process more akin to Metroid. Also, because of the turn-based nature, you have all the time in the world to perfect your shots. I found myself patiently weighing every option and utilizing the 2D layouts, which helped immensely when ricocheting bullets behind the enemy. Seriously, the potential for trick shots made me do robotic fist pumps. The battle system is utterly brilliant. Not only are you given freedom to make amazing long-range shots, but with factors like unsteady firing hands and angled walls, combat requires skill over random number crunching.
There are an impressive amount of weapons, though most fall into one of several types. Aside from the standard handgun, there are sharpshooter weapons that sport a handy laser sight, heavy blasters that are balanced with a friendly fire limitation, and other guns that fire in bursts or pierce through obstacles. Per mission, you bring about three characters in, each with a different weapon specialty, so the game gives you ample opportunity to test out which loadouts you like. On that note, the progression system of obtaining weapons, collecting loot, and leveling your Steambots for skills is addictive. I enjoyed equipping new weapons and utility items that I gained from diligently scouring each ship. To recruit crewmates, you must perform well on missions and have enough water – the in-game currency – but it’s worth it to have another face out on the field. And it must be said that you can equip your Steambots with fun hats. They’re merely cosmetic, but still…hats!
In truth, the excellent feedback loop is what kept me invested. As fun as the game is, it can wear thin over the 40+ missions and 10+ hours of playtime, and that’s without three-starring every mission and exploring New Game+. There is some randomness with the procedurally generated map design, but the gameplay never truly changes. At least later areas mix it up with added elements and different objectives. For instance, you’ll eventually deal with shielded enemies and annoying automated turrets. Additionally, some missions have turn limits. You don’t lose when the countdown hits zero, but the threat level rises, surrounding you with enemy reinforcements. Nevertheless, the game has a consistent challenge level. Sure, there are moments where I felt overwhelmed by enemies, especially during tough boss fights, but that only made it more satisfying when my crew pulled through. And you can always lower or raise the difficulty to one of five levels if you desire.
You’re probably wondering what the “Ultimate Edition” is all about. It includes all the previously released DLC, which means more missions, weapons, hats, and most importantly, an additional character whose existence actually ties into SteamWorld Dig 2. I’ll just say that I loved this character’s electric moveset enough to make him a key member of my party. This Switch port also features touch-screen support, which makes aiming a bit more convenient, though you can only use it in handheld mode as you might expect. If you’ve already purchased the base game and the DLC, there might not be a whole lot to draw you in.
Presentation-wise, the game shares the fluid animation and exceptional robotic character designs seen in the rest of the series. It played well in both docked and handheld with no huge drops in framerate or resolution. The detailed art helped my aim be true – a necessity for this game. The band Steam Powered Giraffe performed the music for this game. And wow, their wild west stylings fit SteamWorld Heist so perfectly to the point that the music and game are now inseparable to me.
SteamWorld Heist: Ultimate Edition is such a treat to have on the Switch, and the bite-sized missions are an excellent match for the system’s portability. The 2D sidescrolling strategy elements are well-executed. While the gameplay can grow repetitive over time, the addictive progression systems kept me hooked. There isn’t much that the ultimate edition offers over the original, but if you haven’t yet experienced this treasure, then this is a great time to join Piper Faraday’s crew.
Note: A review copy was provided for this article.